National signing day also a key date for LSU baseball

Dave Moormann

This week is important for LSU athletics, and it’s not just because Wednesday is national signing day for football.

Most importantly to those who follow baseball, infielders and outfielders start individual training Tuesday. They’ll join the pitchers and catchers, who began their individual workouts and conditioning drills last Saturday.

It’s all in preparation for the season opener at home Friday, Feb. 18 against Wake Forest. That’s less than three weeks away.

As much interest as national signing day generates, football season doesn’t start until September. And most of those who sign Wednesday won’t make an immediate impact.

Not so for the players practicing at Alex Box Stadium. Coach Paul Mainieri is counting on the likes of two-year junior starters Mikie Mahtook, Austin Nola and Tyler Hanover to help the Tigers to get back to Omaha two years after winning the College World Series.

“We’re extremely optimistic about this season, and we can’t wait to get started,” Mainieri was quoted as saying. “This appears to be a very athletic team. We have a lot of guys that run fast and look to be in great shape.”

LSU figures to have a strong double-play combination with Nola at second base and Hanover at shortstop. Mahtook mans the outfield as one of 16 returning lettermen. Eight position players have starting experience, and eight pitchers logged innings last season.

Junior right-hander Matty Ott leads the mound corps with 27 career saves, just two short of the LSU career record Rick Greene set from 1990-92.

Ott has been an extraordinary reliever, but the Tigers certainly could use him in a starting role. They tried to do so last season, but Ott seemed much more comfortable in relief.

Senior right-handers Ben Alsup and Daniel Bradshaw have shown progress, and Mainieri has high hopes for freshman right-hander Kevin Gausman and junior right-hander Tyler Jones.

“Our pitching was outstanding throughout our fall intrasquad games,’ Maineri said, “and it’s evident we have several talented arms.”

For all the optimism, Baseball America isn’t sold. The magazine ranked LSU 22nd in its preseason poll. Three Southeastern Conference teams were ahead of LSU with Florida first, Vanderbilt fourth and defending national champion South Carolina seventh.

What’s more, LSU has non-conference games against eighth-ranked Cal State Fullerton and 25th-ranked Tulane. Just as in football, LSU must play a highly demanding schedule.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Mainieri is looking forward to what lies ahead.

“We’re especially excited about this season,” he said, “because we feel like our program is entering into a new era with a great mix of veterans and newcomers.”

If passion counts for anything, which it does, LSU is in good shape. The Tigers have led the nation in total attendance for 15 consecutive years, including 2010 when they drew an NCAA-record 404,916 fans to 38 home games. LSU is the only school in NCAA history to have exceeded 400,000 in baseball attendance.  

A limited number of season tickets will go on sale to the general public Tuesday. A week later, the remaining individual tickets will be available for purchase. By that time, LSU will be further along in its development.

If nothing else, LSU will have to adjust to new bats, as will every other NCAA team. The NCAA has enacted performance standards that make the aluminum bat react more like the wooden bats used in the major leagues. The familiar “ping” of the bat will be reduced, and the reliance on pitching, defense and speed should rise.

Because of the anticipated reduction in offense, Mainieri said LSU will place “a greater emphasis…on running and hitting line drives. We will have to be adept at that type of game.”

That’s not the attack to which LSU fans have become accustomed, but as long as the Tigers win, that’s really all that matters. That’s why Tuesday is so vital to the Tigers’ on their road to victory.